In an abrupt but appropriate reversal of Trump administration policies, President Joe Biden’s Justice Department has halted federal executions pending a review of protocols put in place under former President Donald Trump. Late in Trump’s term, the federal government carried out a spree of more than a dozen executions — an unconscionable rush job that was clearly aimed at stoking Trump’s political base. Given the virtual inevitability of innocent executions, along with the shift in public opinion away from use of the ultimate punishment, the new moratorium should be the first step toward permanent abolition of the death penalty in America.
Most nations in the advanced world long ago ended the barbaric practice of killing their own citizens as punishment for crimes. America remains an outlier — though even here, the concept of capital punishment for convicted murderers today garners less than 50 percent support in polls.
Other arguments against executions abound: Research shows the death penalty is meted out disproportionately against minorities and the poor, as compared to non-poor whites who commit the same crimes. There’s precious little evidence that executions have any deterrent effect. And there are abundant indications, including many murder convictions overturned based on advancements in DNA evidence, that innocent Americans have been executed.
People don’t need an ounce of sympathy for genuine murderers to conclude that any risk of executing an innocent person, ever, is too high a price to pay for keeping capital punishment on the books.
The Trump administration unwittingly provided yet another argument for abolishing the death penalty by shamelessly politicizing its use. After presidents of both parties effectively ceased federal executions for 16 years, William Barr’s Justice Department conducted 13 of them in the final 13 months of Trump’s presidency — more than in any similar span of time since the late 1800s. Five were conducted after Trump lost reelection to an opponent who had vowed to cease executions, leaving the unseemly impression Trump’s administration was trying to get as much killing done as possible before his successor could stop it.
As we have argued before, Biden has a rare opportunity to bury this archaic and savage practice once and for all. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement July 1 temporarily halting all pending federal executions is a necessary start, but Biden should move quickly beyond it: He should commute all current and future federal death sentences on his watch to life in prison without parole. He should push for legislation abolishing the federal death penalty going forward. And he should use the federal power of the purse to incentivize state governments to follow suit. On this most central of justice issues, it’s time for America to finally join the modern world.